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Critic's Notebook

The pop star we love to hate

A critic tries to come to terms with Ke$ha’s appeal — and fails

(Chad Batka for The New York Times)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / April 8, 2011

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There’s a Facebook page called “I hate Kesha.’’ It’s one of at least a dozen with similar titles that diss the pop star Ke$ha, who comes to the House of Blues on Tuesday. But this particular page had the most “likes,’’ or members, when I came across it earlier this week: 6,194.

Michael K of the brilliant gossip site Dlisted.com, which routinely rags on the singer, can’t even bring himself to spell her name with the dollar sign. Ke¢ha, he calls her in what must be the most apt commentary on Ke$ha’s artistic worth.

Even I have been a dedicated naysayer, starting with a CD review so acidic that it landed me a cameo, as a voice of critical dissent, in the Wikipedia entry for Ke$ha’s debut album, “Animal.’’ I stand by this assertion: “Like the sound Ke$ha’s hit single references, you can almost hear the clock counting down her 15 minutes of fame. Tick, tock.’’

That was back in January of last year, when her first single, “Tik Tok,’’ was in heavy radio rotation and her career was on the cusp of taking off. It did, of course, and it proved I was dead wrong about her longevity in pop music. Duly noted.

What I also didn’t foresee is just how much vitriol Ke$ha would stir up the more popular she became. She’s the pop star we love to hate, more so than any other in recent memory. Poke around the Internet, a convenient place to anonymously slander anyone you’d like, and you’ll find all manner of anti-Ke$ha sentiment, from parody videos of her songs to YouTube diatribes about why she gets under our skin — if not personally, then certainly her music and persona.

Ke$ha, for the blissfully unaware, is the 24-year-old singer born Kesha Rose Sebert and raised in Nashville. She tried her hand at country and rock and sang back-up vocals for other artists before settling on a stylized brand of dance-pop peppered with spoken raps and Auto-Tuned vocals. Her songs imply she’s the ultimate party girl, the one who probably can’t remember how she got home. She’s a mess, but at least she owns it and she’s as trashy as she wants to be: When Ke$ha plays the House of Blues, she’ll be presenting “The Get $leazy Tour.’’

Let’s be fair, too. Ke$ha’s official Facebook page has exceeded 10 million fans, her debut topped the charts upon its release last year, and she’s doing something right if she can rack up two No. 1 singles (“Tik Tok’’ and “We R Who We R’’) on the Billboard Hot 100.

None of that, though, overrides the disgust she seems to elicit. Wrestling with my own feelings about why she irritates me so much, I enlisted my friends for their opinions. A casual inquiry on my Facebook page — “Why do you hate Ke$ha? Or do you?’’ — ignited a flurry of 32 fierce comments. They bemoaned everything from Ke$ha’s lack of credibility to the vapidness of her lyrics. “She is the embodiment of everything disgusting about the music industry,’’ someone hissed.

You could add to that list a number of other complaints. She can’t sing; when she does, she uses too much Auto-Tune. That dollar sign is infuriating. Her enunciation is grating. She looks dirty. She’s not original. She’s a bad role model. The songs are disposable.

Many of these criticisms you could aim squarely at Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, or Katy Perry, and yet none of them are dogged with nearly the same fervor as Ke$ha. I blame it partly on the persona Ke$ha has created — a character that’s not especially provocative, or even interesting. Say what you will about the aforementioned pop stars, but most of us wouldn’t mind meeting them, right? You know Gaga would be a trip (perhaps a little insufferable, but still), and you’d raise some serious hell with Perry.

But no matter how much her music talks up the fact that she’s a good time, I simply don’t want to party with Ke$ha. If you believe the premise of her songs, you know she would end up wasted and draped over your shoulders, mumbling about how she wants to keep dancing. And that voice. That voice! It’s the kind you hear on the sidewalk after last call, the one you taught yourself to tune out on the subway.

Someone asked me if I was just too old to get Ke$ha. That intrigued me. How on earth could a 32-year-old man relate to songs about nothing more than debauchery? (I left a house party at 8:30 p.m. last Saturday.) But then I dismissed that notion when I remembered how I sang every word of Justin Bieber’s “Baby’’ last week in the supermarket. Combined with the dance moves I busted in aisle 10, I figured that’s not the behavior of a grumpy old man.

Convinced that Ke$ha rubbed me wrong simply because of her antics, I went on a long walk the other day and played her debut in its entirety on my iPod. I took a deep breath and vowed to listen with forgiving ears. It worked, sort of. I swiveled my hips a little to the first few songs (“She sounds great on ‘Animal,’ ’’ I raved). I sang along to “Boots & Boys.’’ But then I suppressed a nervous tic during “Tik Tok’’ and lost that battle on “Blah Blah Blah.’’

By the time she was bragging about “throwing up in the closet’’ on “Party at a Rich Dude’s House,’’ I yanked the headphones off and realized I should have trusted my first impression. I then did the only thing that seemed appropriate: That “I hate Kesha’’ Facebook page is now 6,195 members strong.

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.

KE$HA

At: House of Blues, Tuesday, 8 p.m. Tickets: $39.50-$49.50. 800-745-3000, www.livenation.com